x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The lives of others

Books As a teenager, Jan Wong moved to China and embraced Maoism. In her new book the Canadian journalist returns to Beijing and attempts to right a nagging wrong.

Demonstrators raise their cymbals, drumsticks and Little Red Books at an 1966 demonstration in front of the Soviet Embassy in Beijing.
Demonstrators raise their cymbals, drumsticks and Little Red Books at an 1966 demonstration in front of the Soviet Embassy in Beijing.

As a teenager, Jan Wong moved to China and embraced Maoism. In her new book, Michael Donohue writes, the Canadian journalist returns to Beijing and attempts to right a nagging wrong. A Comrade Lost and Found Jan Wong Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Dh88 It might be hard to make a complete list of the people whom the Canadian journalist Jan Wong has infuriated. Between 1996 and 2002, while writing the "Lunch With" column at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Wong raised the hackles of Margaret Atwood by impugning the novelist's spelling skills, Suzanne Somers by noting the ageing actress had "creeping crêpe-neck syndrome," and Jeffrey Archer by asking about his connection with a prostitute. When the lunch column came to an end - that is, when celebrities were no longer willing to eat with a writer many called "the Queen of Mean" - Wong switched to features, though that didn't prevent her from occasionally stirring up trouble. She appalled the people of Rochester, New York, by visiting the city and writing a detailed column about "why Torontonians wouldn't ever want to come here".

But before she made her name infuriating North Americans, Wong was a celebrated foreign correspondent: she headed The Globe and Mail's Beijing bureau during some of the most significant years in recent Chinese history. She covered the student protests of 1989, was an eyewitness to the Tiananmen Square massacre and wangled her way into parts of China normally off-limits to journalists, such as a village in Gansu Province where a third of the population was mentally disabled.

As a critic of the Chinese government Wong had special credibility, because she had once been an arch-Maoist: she moved to Beijing as a 19-year-old in 1972, hoping to take part in the Cultural Revolution, and was one of only two western students at Peking University. Her astute and still-relevant 1996 memoir, Red China Blues, recounts her gradual disillusionment with revolutionary politics, and ends with the admission that she had been "duped, conned, suckered by Maoism". A fair number of Chinese, she showed, felt the same way.

Any maligned Canadian still bearing a grudge might take pleasure in one chapter of Red China Blues, where Wong confesses a sin from her past in Beijing. When a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, approached Wong in the summer of 1973 and asked for help in getting to America, Wong promptly informed "Fu the Enforcer", a strict party cadre, of the young woman's "counter-revolutionary" request. She never saw Yin again, but years later, Wong learned her fellow student had been expelled from the university and sent off to labour in a remote province.

"As the years passed," Wong writes of Yin in a new book, A Comrade Lost and Found, "I tried to forget her." But she couldn't, and so in August 2006, 12 years after she last lived in China, Wong returned to Beijing for a month to track down the woman she once stabbed in the back. The resulting narrative, a sequel of sorts to Red China Blues, describes what would seem an impossible quest, since Wong starts off with no leads and Chinese university records from the early 1970s simply don't exist. Yin might have left China, or she might be dead. But Wong, with her husband and two sons in tow, goes looking anyway.

The search leads her to seek out several old friends and classmates, whose decidedly post-Communist lives let Wong riff on how much Beijing has changed since the old days. (The Number One Machine Tool Factory, a bastion of Maoist fervour where Wong once operated a lathe, has been replaced by a posh apartment complex.) She also fills quite a lot of pages with a witty, though introductory, history of the city. But in her opening chapter, Wong promises something much more ambitious: to figure out why she, a middle-class girl from Montreal, threw herself so ardently into the Cultural Revolution, and by extension, to understand "why many Chinese did, too". She goes on: "At a moment in history when Beijing is emerging on the world stage and its stability remains uncertain, any clarity might help prevent a future convulsion."

Preventing future convulsions is a tall order for a month's stay in Beijing, especially when clarity on what the Chinese call "the disastrous decade" is so notoriously hard to come by. When Mao declared the Cultural Revolution in 1966, plenty of sane people thought it was a good idea. Since the late 1950s, hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives had been ruined by unjust "anti-Rightist" campaigns, millions had died in the famine induced by the Great Leap Forward, and the country had split with its most important ally, the Soviet Union, which recalled invaluable expert advisers in every field. Mao, who'd brought about all these calamities, managed to blame almost everything on foreign interference, corruption within the Communist party, and - that all-purpose term - "bourgeois attitudes". And he convinced millions of people that a Cultural Revolution, by rooting out these perceived evils, would set China back on the true "socialist road".

What happened instead was that mobs of students, egged on by Mao, "smashed everything old", while Chinese viciously scrutinised each other for traces of politically incorrect thought. Anything, from boxing to Beethoven, was liable to be branded "bourgeois" - and thus everything was vulnerable to attack. Universities turned into war zones as rebel factions fought for control - until 1969, when Mao ordered most Red Guards out into the countryside, and sent the army to occupy the campuses. Even Mao must have realised that the students' political passion, their rabid mass attack on "bourgeois" things, had turned into a madness that nearly destroyed the country.

So perhaps it comes as a relief that when Wong meets up with her old friends, they don't seem especially interested in political convulsions. They'd much prefer to talk about luxury cars. On two separate occasions Wong hears Beijingers boast about the soaring market value of their dogs. Her old roommate Scarlet, who when parting with Wong in 1973 offered a touching gift - her Red Guard arm band - shows up in 2006 wearing "a denim jumper with an American flag embroidered across the chest". Now married to a successful businessman, the former Mao-worshipper blathers about real estate, brags of her plastic surgery, and says to Wong, "In the 1990s, if we had a hundred thousand yuan, we felt rich. Now we have millions of yuan. Five million is nothing. Now one hundred million yuan is something." Needless to say, those "bourgeois attitudes" have had their revenge.

The young, meanwhile, have been kept in the dark. When Wong brings up the Tiananmen Square massacre with a group of masseuses, one of them - born in the 1980s - asks, "What are you talking about?" Another says, "What is the Tiananmen Incident?" Wong is hardly the first to report this phenomenon, best shown by the students in a 2006 TV documentary who couldn't even identify the iconic photo of a man blocking a tank near Tiananmen Square. But no matter how often such widespread ignorance is reported, it does not cease to amaze.

It becomes a little more understandable, though, in the light of Wong's portrait of a generation that has strained to keep unpleasant facts from its children. Middle-aged Chinese are extremely loath to discuss Tiananmen or the Cultural Revolution, and even when Wong does get them talking, conversation comes to a sudden halt if anyone else comes into the room. When Scarlet learns about Wong's plan to find Yin Luoyi and apologise, she raises an eyebrow and says: "No one does that."

This reluctance to discuss the past is nowhere better displayed than when Yin Luoyi, the author's supposed victim, finally appears. (In a comical anticlimax, Wong simply answers her cell phone one day and hears Yin's voice.) She confirms that she was indeed expelled from the university, after sitting through a humiliating session in which all her classmates denounced her, and that she attempted suicide before being shipped off to Jilin Province, where peasants shunned her as a reactionary. She got back on her feet in the late 1970s, after the Cultural Revolution ended, but one might forgive her a little bitterness about the past. As Wong soon discovers, though, neither Yin's daughter nor her second husband knows a thing about what happened to her. She simply hasn't told them.

What Wong's book shows, more vividly than anything else, is that the Chinese have not swept the "decade of disaster" under the rug. They have tied it to a concrete block and dropped it in the ocean. Finding a woman you haven't seen in three decades, it turns out, is much easier than getting a Chinese person to admit to any soul-searching about the Cultural Revolution. The book's quest comes to an end with the revelation that, in fact, Wong didn't have much to do with Yin's ruin. Yin had "25 or 30" crimes on her ledger, and Wong's tattling was not the decisive act. "I wouldn't have been in such trouble merely because I asked you to help me go abroad," Yin explains. "You didn't have that much power. You didn't have enough influence to ruin my life." Wong does some fancy footwork writing around this, since it threatens to ruin the premise of her book, but she needn't worry: it's a grim and rich irony that the only person who wants to take personal responsibility for what happened to Yin - who, in fact, seems perversely to crave it - is the so-called Queen of Mean, who didn't have anything to do with it. The people who did, a group of harmless-looking old teachers and party cadres, are now serenely retired, and haven't talked about those things in years.

Michael Donohue, a regular contributor, last wrote for The Review on baseball in China. He lives in Beijing.